The Book of Strange New Things
by Michel Faber
I forget whose review it was that made me seek out this book (possibly Michael Kindness on Books on the Nightstand?) but if it was you, thank you. I really loved this book and I’m not sure I would have picked it up without a push.
Despite his towering reputation, this is the first Michel Faber book I’ve read (though with this strong a start, I certainly don’t intend for it to be the last). But it wasn’t lack of previous fandom that risked putting me off so much as the fact that the central character is a vicar. And not just a vicar, but a vicar who goes off to another planet as a missionary to spread Christianity.
Now, it’s not that I hate vicars on principle. Growing up, our vicar was a genuine family friend and I’ve met many other vicars who seem like decent sorts. They effectively dedicate their lives to supporting other people, after all. And while I’m an atheist who occasionally has doubts and veers back towards agnosticism but is categorically against a lot of what organised religion does and says, I do see that it can have positive effects and do positive things sometimes. But I am really not a fan of evangelising, particularly when it goes hand-in-hand with colonialism (Chinua Achebe may have something to do with this) so this book was a risky manoeuvre for me. One that paid off.
“He was too frightened to speak. This was no hallucination. This was what happened to the universe when you were no longer able to hold it together. Atoms in clusters, rays of light, forming ephemeral shapes before moving on. His greatest fear, as he dissolved into the dark, was that he would never see other humans in the same way again.”
The book opens with Peter Leigh and his wife Bea driving to the airport for the first step of his journey. They’re relatively young and the separation is going to be hard, but this was an opportunity Peter couldn’t turn down. He has been chosen by mega-corporation USIC to travel out to their base, Oasis, in another galaxy. He will be the first ever missionary in space. He will meet an alien species that no-one on Earth knows anything about more than that they exist. It has been made clear that he is going there for the aliens, not the humans.
This is science fiction as it should be. There’s some actual science and some futuristic science that’s had enough thought put into it to be believable. There are some clear parallels between the harder SF stuff (i.e. space and aliens) and the more relatable human dramas. There are some big questions being discussed – not just religion, but more widely morality and how we all judge each other, for example. But at heart this is a great story about living breathing characters.
“Atmosphere, in his experience, had always been an absence. The air here was a presence so palpable that he was tempted to believe he could let himself fall and the air would simply catch him like a pillow. It wouldn’t, of course. But as it nuzzled against his skin, it almost promised that it would.”
Difficulty communicating is the obvious parallel drawn. Peter and Bea can send each other messages, but increasingly find they don’t relate to each other’s daily life. Peter throws himself with gusto into his mission and doesn’t see the first indications that not all is well back home. Bea has no way at all to picture Peter’s new life and is struggling to see why his mission matters. Peter’s interactions with the alien species have a similar surface level of ability to communicate that is hampered by the inability to comprehend – their reference points are so different.
There are hints throughout that USIC is shadowy, not to be trusted, up to nefarious purposes. Peter gets to know a woman at Oasis called Grainger who seems at pains to point out oddities and inconsistencies in the small community of workers there. But everything she points out could also be a very sensible measure to make sure life runs smoothly so far from Earth and its resources. Faber is even-handed at all times, leaving the reader to make up their own mind about the idea of spreading religion, or indeed spreading the human race, out into other worlds.
“I miss you. I miss living through the visible moments of my life with you. Without you at my side, I feel as though my eyes are just a closed-circuit camera without film in it, registering what’s out there, second by second, letting it all vanish instantly to be replaced by more images, none of them properly appreciated.”
Honestly, this book has it all: action, philosophy, romance, drama, suspense, mystery, high concepts and warm humanity. And it is gorgeously written. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Published 2014 by Canongate.